According to most scholars, Mark’s gospel was the first gospel to be written and so is a highly original work. Few documents of its era are so vivid and accessible. Originally written in Greek, the common language of the Greco-Roman Empire, its style is vigorous and colourful and full of the details sometimes left out in the other gospels.
Jesus emerges from the pages of Mark as one full of conviction and urgency, as compassionate and authoritative, as teacher and healer. Yet he is a sign of contradiction for the society which surrounds him and eventually he is condemned and executed.
Was that the end of the story?
Mark’s gospel says no. Mark’s gospel claims that Jesus, the victimised and slain, is none other than the son of God. It invites each of its hearers to answer the question at the heart of the gospel ‘Who is Jesus?’ and to wrestle with the implications of the further question ‘What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?’
USING THE RESource ‘RICH TEXT’ INTRODUCTIONS TO THE GOSPEL of MARK In the Classroom
A brief word about the Gospels
The gospels themselves are inspired interpretations of the meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ arising from the earliest experiences of believers in Jesus Christ. Through all ages of the Church they stand as documents which Christians will read, study, pray over and apply to their own lives and situations, and through which God will speak to them. As such they are rightly called ‘the Word of God’. As foundational documents of the Church they also stand as a reference point against which Christians may judge the authenticity of their lives as Christians and the extent to which the Church is fulfilling its call.
The Gospel Introductions in RESource
The visual introductions to the gospels on RESource are brief interpretations
(not inspired) of each gospel presented to get you started on a closer study of each particular one.
• First of all you might like to consider the advantages and disadvantages of trying represent the gospels in images at all? (While Christianity has generally been at ease with the use of sacred images, Judaism and Islam avoid the use of images in conveying holy truths.)
• How do you feel about the cartoon technique used by the artists in this particular introduction. What is helpful what is distracting? In what way are they presenting stereotypical images? Is this how you yourself imagine Jesus, the disciples, First Century Palestine? What influences how we imagine these things?
• Consider your own image of Jesus. Could you easily convey this visually or in other way? Why or why not?
• Do the gospel introductions in RESource tend to suggest or reinforce the idea of Jesus as a ‘fantasy’ figure rather than as a ‘real’ figure? How close can we get to the ‘real’ Jesus?
The RESource Introduction to the Gospel of Mark
Since the question of Jesus’ identity is critical in the gospel of Mark, this visual introduction to the gospel uses the question ‘Who is this man?’ as a stimulus to thinking about the themes of this gospel.
• The presentation starts ‘underwater’. Why might this be? (Think of the significance of water to Christians and also the first event in the life of Christ recorded in Mark’s Gospel.) Bubbles rise to the surface and a fish swims by. What is the Christian symbolism of the fish? We see Jesus upon the Lake of Galilee . In what region does almost all of Jesus’ ministry take place in the gospel of Mark?
• Search Mark’s gospel for passages that suggest the different identifications (blasphemer/healer/victim etc.) of Jesus proposed in the flash presentation.
• A red screen introduces the frames concerning Jesus’ death. What’s the impact of the colour red? What does the colour suggest or symbolise? The passion narrative occupies a proportionately larger part of Mark’s gospel than do the passion narratives in the other gospels. What do you know about the meaning of being a victim? a scapegoat?
• Rene Girard has studied how violence and scapegoating has shaped societies. What do you think of his theory? Can you provide some further examples of where you see this happening in our society, in our communities, in our families?
• How is the crucifixion scene idealised in this presentation? What visual techniques are used to single out the significance of Jesus’ death? Is this legitimate use of media? Why or why not?
• If Jesus’ actual death was quite different to this, what do you suppose caused the Roman soldier to make his declaration of faith? Explain how this could also be a device used by Mark, almost at the end of his narrative, to make a point about who Jesus was and who it was that recognised his true identity?
Exploring: History and Geography
All the gospels, Mark’s included, are set in Palestine, principally in Galilee and Jerusalem, where Jesus exercised his public ministry. Understanding something of the history, geography and cultural and social background of Palestine can give us many insights into Jesus’ way of life and specific experiences, and thus also into his parables and ways of teaching. While the purpose behind the gospels and other writings of the New Testament is theological rather than historical, knowledge of the first century setting will ground the theology of each of the evangelists in actual time and place. A brief article ‘The Times and Places of Jesus’ emphasises the particular historical and geographical context of Jesus’ life and teaching.
For a brief outline of the world of Jesus’ time two pages on the Christian Classics site – New Testament World and Times and a Chronology of Roman, Jewish and Christian events – are compact, easy to read and very informative. Also check background material in New Testament Core Resources found elsewhere in this arena.
Online atlas of the Bible
Bible Atlas Online provides an orientation to the geographic and historical background to the whole Bible. It is one of the best sources of Biblical maps on the Net
Scroll down to Part 3: The New Testament Era especially Chapters 17 and 18 to view maps in relation to the life and times of Jesus. It contains a fine map of Lake Galilee and its surrounds, which form the background to the Galilean ministry of Jesus narrated in the first section of the Gospel of Mark. Another map which you might find useful is one which attempts to chart Jesus’ movements in and around Jerusalem during the last week of his life.
Some other useful maps in relation to the life and ministry of Jesus and the spread of Christianity are:
- a clear map of the Holy Land with links to photographs and information on place mentioned
- a collection of maps of various locales relevant to the gospel accounts
- four maps, including one showing the particular locations in which each of the four gospels are thought to have originated
Photo essays and galleries
In addition to the two large photo collections mentioned in the New Testament Core Resources, several smaller photo essays – one on Lake Galilee, one which provides a virtual tour of the geographical settings ofthe life and times of Jesus and one from a settlement outside Jerusalem which has set up a ‘Bible Garden’with reconstructions of Jewish life at the time of Jesus, will help you visualise the physical context: the landscapes and townships and some of the artifacts and architecture of the society from which Mark’s gospel emerged.
You might like to visit the Franciscan site which deals with the town of Capernaum, an important location in Mark’s account of Jesus’ Galilean ministry and the home of the apostle Peter. A site which studies early synagogues gives some insight into the role of the synagogue in Jewish life in the first century. Navigate to a floor plan and photographs of the remnants of the synagogue at Capernaum where Jesus preached in the first century.
Using the online atlas:
- Work out how far it is from Capernaum to Bethsaida (Mk 6:45); from Capernaum to Tyre (Mk 7:31); from Capernaum to Caesarea Philippi (Mk 8:27).
- Locate the ‘region of the Decapolis’ (Mk 7:31).
- Estmate the approximate distance from Bethany to Jerusalem.
- Show the route that Jesus may have taken on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem.
- Name the gate/s in Jerusalem which lead to the Mount of Olives.
- Map the movements of Jesus in Jerusalem according to Mark.
Look carefully at the maps and at Mark’s gospel and set some other atlas challenges for each other.
After looking at the photo-galleries:
- Describe the countryside round Jericho.
- Imagine the view and how far you could see from the branches of a sycamore such as the one pictured in Jericho.
- Say how far below sea level is Lake Galilee.
- Name three harbours on Lake Galilee.
- Note at least three differences between the landscape of Galilee and that of Judaea.
Look at the photo-galleries and devise other challenges for each other.
After visiting the Life in the Time of Jesus site:
- Say which foreign power controlled Palestine at the time of Christ.
- Indicate the kinds of food which were eaten by ordinary families in the Galilee region.
- Explain why fishing was so important in Galilee. Would fishermen in Jesus’ time have been poor?
- Describe a synagogue. What took place there?
- Make a model of a typical house in Palestine. How were these houses built and furnished?
Examining: Genre and Author
What is a gospel?
The Gospel according to Mark is one of the four gospel accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus which are at the heart of the New Testament. For a definition and introduction to the gospel genre, refer to the entry ‘What is a Gospel?’ in the Resources section on the Scripture front page. Mark’s gospel is the shortest of the gospels and almost certainly the first one written. Look at ‘Inspiration and the Canon of the New Testament’ in the Resources section for a brief introduction to the inspiration of scripture and how the Church understands the scriptures not simply as human documents but as the word of God.
Who wrote the Gospel of Mark?
Because the gospel has always been known by Mark’s name, some people have felt that it was written by the ‘John Mark’ who is mentioned several times in the Acts of the Apostles and the New Testament letters. However, it is more likely that the gospel of Mark was composed by the gathering together of memories and stories of Jesus treasured by those who had seen and listened to him (the living tradition) and formed into a narrative by someone anxious to show that weakness, misunderstanding and suffering were not foreign to believers in Jesus but part of Christian experience from the very first.
Examining: Time and Place
When was the Gospel of Mark written?
Though Matthew is counted as the first book of the New Testament, biblical scholars are quite certain that the first gospel to be written down is the one we call the Gospel of Mark. This is because a large proportion of Mark’s narrative is represented within the gospels of both Matthew and Luke, which indicates the probability that both of them knew Mark’s text. Mark was most likely written during the decade 60–70 CE.
Where was it written?
Scholars think that the Gospel of Mark might have been written for the community of Christians in Rome. From earliest times they suffered suspicion and persecution, which culminated in Nero’s punishment of Christians after the partial destruction of Rome by fire in 64 CE. Read a little background to the early persecutions on the Catacombs of Rome site. In fact, a strand of tradition has often associated Mark’s gospel with the testimony and tradition of St Peter, who was leader of the Church in Rome.
Choose the most accurate response to the following questions/statements.
Which of the following statements is the most accurate description of what a gospel is?
- An historical account of the life of Jesus, accurate in every detail.
- An account of the life of Jesus, drawing on the experiences and memories people had of him to explain who he truly was.
- An inspired account of the life of Jesus dictated to the writer by an angel.
- A legendary account of the life of Jesus written years after he was dead.
Scholars think that the Gospel of Mark was the first to be written because:
- It is the shortest.
- Parts of it are contained in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.
- It contains details that could only have been given by eye-witnesses.
- It doesn’t contain many of Jesus’ teachings or sayings. They were collected together later.
The Gospel of Mark was written:
- To encourage and sustain Christians suffering persecution, including those who weakened under pressure.
- Because the apostles and those who knew Jesus and remembered his life, death and ministry were beginning to die.
- To show that though Jesus was the Son of God, his way wasn’t always easy.
- All of the above.
Inspiration of Sacred Scripture means:
- That Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were particularly holy disciples, who were commanded by Jesus to notice everything he said and did and write it down accurately.
- That the Church judged that the accounts of Jesus given in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were of crucial importance to the forming of Christians in the image and likeness of Christ and so could be truly regarded as inspired by God.
- That an angel of God dictated to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all that they were to write down concerning the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.
- That what the sacred writers wrote was what God intended to be written.
Encountering: Reading the Text
The very best way of encountering the text of Mark’s gospel is by reading it through from beginning to end as you would any book. Reading the entire gospel at one sitting is not difficult and only takes about an hour. It is a short book and, when read in its entirety, gives the reader an overall sense of what the gospel is all about. It also conveys a vivid sense of the person of Jesus himself, full of energy and urgency, committed to bringing about the reign of God, and passionate in his efforts to preach and teach and to confront and overcome evil. We also meet his disciples, who trail along behind him, gripped by his strength of character and his holiness but rarely understanding his meaning.
You can read the New Revised Standard Version of the Gospel of Mark online. Explore the site to find an introduction to the gospel and its themes. It is accompanied by a short helpful summary of the themes of the gospel. The US Bishops site has a version of the Gospel of Mark set out verse by verse which makes it very easy to read.
Encountering: Studying the Text
Dom Henry Wansbrough has an online introduction to the Gospel of Mark which is really helpful for teachers who may not have studied the gospel before teaching it. It is a full short study of the gospel divided into easy to understand sections with the chief themes of Mark introduced and discussed. Richard Martin’s updated Narrow Gate site contains a very useful dot-pointed introduction to the gospel.
The St John in the Wilderness Adult Education site outlines Elizabeth Malbon’s ‘Hearing Mark, A Listener’s Guide’ in point form. Her four headings: Kingdom, Community, Discipleship and Suffering suggest four preoccupations fundamental to Mark’s gospel. A third worthwhile introductory article, which covers some already-explored aspects of the gospel but which draws attention to its distinctive features, is The Gospel of Mark: A Story of Secrecy and Misunderstanding.
Some of these sites discuss similar material. Choose from among them approaches that will best help your own understanding and that of your students.
The beginning and the end
The very first sentence of the gospel, ‘The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ is in itself a miniature gospel in that it announces in a few words the key message of the whole gospel: that a particular human being, Jesus of Nazareth, is the anointed one (Christ) of God and that he is God’s Son. So, right from the beginning we readers know who Jesus is, but much of the interest and drama of the Gospel of Mark concerns the struggles of others in the story to recognise his true identity.
Moreover, the word ‘beginning’ implies an ending, but this gospel has no proper ending. It is good news beginning in the life of Jesus but which continues to unfold in the lives of those who come to share in his identity through belief in him. Many manuscript versions of the gospel end at Mark 16:1–8; others have verses 9–20 added. These verses are very ancient, dating from the second century, and bring the conclusion of Mark’s gospel into line with the concluding parts of the other gospels. See the footnotes to Chapter 16 on the New American Bible site or you might read the Tektonics site which discusses the question ‘Did Mark’s Gospel end at 16:8?
The structure of Mark’s gospel
As a gospel revolving around the question of identity, its climactic moment is Jesus’ question to the disciples, ‘Who do you say I am?’ (8:27), and Peter’s response to this question. This moment of recognition divides the gospel into two very nearly equal parts. The Teachers’ Enterprise in Religious Education (TERE) site looks at the two parts of the gospel and makes connections between them and the journey of faith of every Christian.
Alternatively, it might be helpful to imagine the Gospel of Mark as a play: Mark’s Gospel – A Play in Three Acts.
Finally, Professor Felix Just SJ, on his Catholic Resources site, introduces some terminology (with examples) which scholars use when they are discussing the structure and content of Mark’s gospel. He also provides an analysis of how the gospel is constructed and many links to reputable sites for New Testament studies.
The identity of Jesus in Mark’s gospel
As we noted elsewhere, throughout the first half of the gospel the question spoken or unspoken in everyone’s mind is, ‘Who is this man, and where does his extraordinary power to confront and deal with evil come from?’ This question is made explicit in Jesus’ own question to Peter, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Peter’s response, ‘You are the Christ’ is the turning point of the gospel. From that moment on Jesus is at pains to teach his disciples the way of the Christ, a way very different from the one expected by them: the way of the cross. They are slow to learn and successively misunderstand, betray, deny and desert him.
It is left to a pagan centurion to declare to the world at Jesus’ death, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God’. An Introduction to the Christology of Mark’s Gospel shows how carefully Mark prepares his readers to understand how Jesus ‘the Son of God’ can only be understood in the context of Jesus ‘the Son of Man’.
Other themes in Mark’s gospel
The question of the identity of Jesus is an important issue in the gospel but there are other elements and motifs which make themselves clearer as the text becomes more familiar. James Tabor’s Notes on Mark, a page on Dr Tabor’s larger site The Jewish and Roman World of Jesus, will help you be attentive to these themes.
Mark’s Titles for Jesus is another topic you might like to explore. The Painsley school site offers an exerciseon the Titles that could be used to sum up a unit of work. The Kingdom of God is another key focus of the synoptic gospels including the Gospel of Mark.
Teachers who are interested in exploring some of the issues that the study of Mark’s gospel has raised might like to read the Messianic Secret, which discusses theories about why Jesus seems so anxious to conceal his identity in Mark’s gospel.
- When you read the gospel straight through, what aspects of Mark’s story of Jesus impress you the most?
- Create a story map of Mark’s gospel.
- What do you think is the main point of Mark’s gospel? Does its structure reflect this?
- What is the special significance of the beginning and the ending of Mark’s gospel?
- Choose two titles of Jesus used by Mark and explain why they are important.
- What does Mark understand by the term ‘the Kingdom of God’?
- Make a timeline of Jesus’ movements in Jerusalem (from the beginning of Chapter 11).
- Teachers might use Richard Martin’s quiz/crossword approach to encourage detailed examination of Mark.
Encountering: Biblical Exegesis
Biblical exegesis sounds solemn and complicated, but it really is simply the close study of sections of scripture in order to understand their message more clearly.
We offer two models of exegesis here.
1. Mark 1:29–39 A Day in the Life of Jesus is more suitable for junior levels and is really a way to guide students in a careful, reflective reading of a text, with few or no extra resources. Older students need to learn how to consult concordances, dictionaries and commentaries to expand their knowledge of the text and to test their own insights in relation to the conclusions of other scholars.
2. A helpful site for teachers of older students who want to familiarise themselves with the aim and a method of biblical exegesis is Richard Ascough’s A Guide to Biblical Exegesis. You will find a good simple definition of biblical exegesis and a straightforward three-step method proposed:
- What does the author say?
- What did the author mean?
- What does it mean for me?
Ascough suggests a particular way of going about answering these three questions. The first tasks in each section are well within the capabilities of middle-school students. Later tasks and terminology are more appropriate to senior and tertiary students. Hyperlinks within the text of the article direct teachers to a helpful guide to different translations of the Bible and recommendations about various exegetical tools (concordances, dictionaries, commentaries, etc.) in print.
Exegetical tools online
Because of copyright issues, most online biblical commentaries and dictionaries are either very outdated or lacking in proper scholarship. However, one useful online resource for studying Mark’s gospel is Carl Conrad’s Commentary on Mark, and New Zealand scripture scholar Tim Bulkeley has prepared the beginnings of what could be a very helpful resource: Postmodern Bible. It includes a Hypertext Bible Dictionary, which is by no means exhaustive but is well designed and presented so far.
Choose one of the following passages from Mark’s gospel and prepare an exegesis of the text at an appropriate level:
- Mark 8:22–26
- Mark 9:30–41
- Mark 12:38–44
- Mark 14:1–11
Encountering: Praying with the Text
Praying with a text is a very different activity to studying it, though study can and often does lead to prayer. Studying a scripture text implies an active effort to understand and interpret it, while praying a scriptural text invites us to ‘surrender’ to it, allowing it to penetrate at a deeper level than the cognitive alone.
A very simple method of praying with a scripture passage is suggested in the document Praying with Scripture. St Mary’s Press site also has a simple introduction to Lectio Divina (The Complementary Resources section of this site would be worth exploring and book-marking for its many fine suggestions for religious education teachers). Another site which sets out a daily way of praying with scripture based on St Ignatius’ approach is Sacred Space.
Responding: Lived Responses, Then and Now
The gospels, Mark included, have had a tremendous impact on the lives of Christians who have tried to make a response to the teaching and example of Jesus down the centuries. Some outstanding ones who have lived lives of action balanced by prayer and periods of rest and recreation (cf Mark 1:2939) are:
Ignatius of Loyola whose real awakening to God happened during a period of enforced rest after an injury in war and who is famous for insisting on regular periods of retreat (withdrawing from normal activity for a period to rest and pray) for members of his very active order, the Jesuits. A photo essay on the life and times of Ignatius can be found at the world of Ignatius of Loyola.
John Bosco, the man who founded the Salesian order whose whole religious message was couched in terms of fun and recreation for young people who had precious little experience of such things.
Caroline Chisholm was an Australian social reformer and activist. You can check out her story further in ’25 of the Best’ in ‘The Church’ module of RESource. Often historians overlook the fact that her whole sense of purpose arose from her love of God and commitment to helping make God’s Kingdom come:
During the season of Lent of that year I suffered much; but on the Easter Sunday I was enabled at the altar of our Lord to make an offering of my talents to the God who gave them. I promised to know neither country nor creed, but to try and serve all justly and impartially.
Damien of Molokai was a Belgian who spent his adult life working in the leper colony on Molokai in the Hawaiian Islands. Soon after he arrived, he realised the need of the people suffering from leprosy for meaningful work and a social life that didn’t revolve solely around alcohol, as well as obvious things like medical help and spiritual encouragement. He eventually contracted leprosy himself and died among his people.
The political and journalistic world can boast of very few heroes who compare with Father Damien of Molokai . . . it is worthwhile to look for the sources of such heroism. —Mahatma Gandhi
- What would you say were the sources of Damien’s ‘heroism’?
The Australian actor David Wenham discusses his role as Damien in the 2002 film Molokai. He mentions the intense admiration he developed for the man whose life story he was portraying.
Nick Cave’s Response to the Gospel of Mark an unconventional Introduction to the Gospel of Mark has been written by the Australian contemporary singer and composer Nick Cave. Very different to (and sometimes critical of) the Church’s frequent approach to Jesus, he finds Jesus as presented by Mark, an absolutely riveting figure:
The Christ that emerges from Mark, tramping through the haphazard events of His life, had a ringing intensity about him that I could not resist. Christ spoke to me through His isolation, through the burden of His death, through His rage at the mundane, through His sorrow. Christ, it seemed to me was the victim of humanity’s lack of imagination, was hammered to the cross with the nails of creative vapidity.
- What image did Nick Cave have of Jesus prior to his first ‘real’ reading of Mark’s gospel? What is your own image of Jesus? What is it based on?
- Would you agree with Nick that the portrait of Jesus in Mark conveys a sense of Jesus as one who suffered not only death but isolation, rage and sorrow? What parts of the gospel suggest this suffering?
- What characteristics of Jesus’ life set out in Mark’s gospel particularly appeal to Nick? What appeals to you?
- The Gospel of Mark and the other gospels are the basis of the Church’s knowledge of Jesus as well as Nick’s. How is it that there is such a gap in perception between what Nick sees about Jesus in Mark’s gospel now and what he saw in the Jesus presented to him in childhood?
Responding: Responses in Art and Music
An attempt to create a concordance of artworks relating to particular texts of the gospels has been undertaken on the Textweek site. As quite a few of Mark’s gospel extracts (pericopes) have parallels in the other gospels, the art work and paintings are not necessarily specific to Mark. A variety of art is presented, including black and white woodcuts, renaissance works, 19th century devotional art, some icons and examples of African mafa art. The depictions are by no means of equal artistic merit but the range and contrast offer teachers another way of introducing and speaking about or praying with particular extracts from the gospels. As artist Georges Rouault says, ‘All art is prayer for those who know how to look at it’. An example of a simple non-academic reflection on the Christian meaning of a painting looks at Turner’s Fishermen at Sea which would complement a study of Mark 4:35–41.
Another page, Art and the Bible, suggests ways in which we learn about scripture non-verbally. It contains many links worth exploring: to art, stained glass and clip art sites.
Textweek also has a guide to films that touch on aspects of the scripture reading for each Sunday of the year. For example, in the small extract from Mark’s gospel which we have been looking at in the study and prayer sections – Mark 1:2939 – one of the themes is Jesus’ confrontation of evil. Textweek provides an annotated list of films which examine this theme in various contexts.
Music and performing arts
The history of western music is simply unimaginable without the texts of scripture, and many modern and popular composers also draw on scripture for inspiration. Osvaldo Golijov is a Latin American composer. You can read about his musical response to the Passion according to Mark..
Photographs of a parish–school production of Marty Haugen’s Song of Mark are on the Victoria Gazette page. You might also be interested to read the introduction to performance of Mark’s gospel by a young American pastor and to look at stills from the production on the same site.
Responding: A Personal Response
Mark’s description of a typical day in the life of Jesus shows a balance between work (teaching and healing), rest (spending the day at his friends’ home) and prayer (at the beginning of the day); between the public and the private spheres; between attention to individuals and responsibilities to a larger group. Jesus is neither a workaholic nor a couch potato. He is neither an activist nor a drop-out. He neither craves fame nor is reclusive. He plunges into his ministry, confronting evil in all its manifestations, drawing strength from his relationship with God and comfort from the company of his friends.
Reflect on the following questions:
- How does a typical day of yours compare to a typical day in Jesus’ life?
- What is your work and what is its place in your life?
- What do you do for fun and to ‘recreate’?
- Who are your friends and what special gifts do they bring you?
- Do you pray? How and when?
Complete the following statements either individually or as a group:
- Thinking about Jesus and his attitude to work, rest and prayer I will…
- Thinking about Jesus’ confrontation of evil and suffering we will …
- Thinking about Jesus’ commitment to the reign of God, we will…